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Moon’s tough job of striking balance between US, China

President Moon Jae-in (left) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in (left) and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping (Yonhap)

A phone call between President Moon Jae-in and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping underscored again South Korea’s tough job of striking a delicate balance between the US and China, whose relations enter a new phase under the Joe Biden administration.

The South Korean and Chinese presidents held the phone conversation Tuesday night to discuss a slew of topics ranging from Xi’s delayed visit to Seoul to Moon’s role in the frosty US-North Korea diplomacy and coronavirus response.

There was nothing unusual in the president’s phone call with the Chinese leader, but the timing drew keen attention as it comes ahead of Moon’s first dialogue with President Biden as counterparts.

The new US president, who took office last week, is holding a series of phone calls with heads of states around the world. After completing calls with his American and European counterparts, he is expected to call leaders of his Asian allies, including South Korea and Japan, in the coming days.

The call between Moon and Xi immediately fueled speculations that China may be seeking to ramp up pressure on South Korea as the US-China rivalry enters a new chapter with the US presidential transition.

On Monday, Xi called for world leaders to cooperate more with China in his speech at the World Economic Forum. He stressed multilateralism, possibly targeting the single-handed approach of the US during the Donald Trump administration.

Cheong Wa Dae, however, brushed aside what it called overinterpretations of the latest call, saying the two leaders had meant to hold a conversation since last year to declare 2022 as a year for a South Korea-China cultural exchange.

Their call was the first in almost eight months, with the Chinese president’s trip to Seoul that was supposed to be made last year delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The presidential office declined to confirm news reports claiming Beijing was the first to reach out.

“South Korea’s long-held stance -- security with the US and economy with China -- will be put to the test in the Biden era,” Ahn Byong-jin, professor at Global Academy for Future Civilizations of Kyung Hee University, said in a recent interview with The Korea Herald.

He noted that the renewed ideological clash between the two super powers is imminent as they are set to sit down together with other countries to discuss sensitive issues like climate change and trade.

“For South Korea, a more sophisticated strategy based on principles should be made to reduce diplomatic challenges,” he added.

During the 40-minute conversation, Moon and Xi touched on a lengthy list of topics, according to Cheong Wa Dae's readout of the call.

Moon expressed hopes of inviting Xi as soon as possible once the coronavirus situation has stabilized, and Xi responded positively, saying there is a need for the two countries to continue related discussions for the visit.

They also agreed to resume stalled talks on a South Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit in Seoul that was also supposed to be held last year.

Regarding the peace talks on the Korean Peninsula, Moon asked for Xi’s constructive role in the dialogue and Xi showed his full support for Moon’s push for inter-Korean and North Korea-US talks. Citing the North’s statement issued at a recent party congress, the Chinese leader added that the North also seems to have not ruled out diplomacy with the South and the US.

Ahead of celebrating the 30th anniversary of their bilateral ties next year, the two leaders also agreed to establish a committee consisting of experts from both countries to work together on a blueprint laying out their partnership for the next 30 years.

A statement from Beijing on the call also referred to the committee and its expectations about their trade partnership. But it did not mention Xi’s comments on his Seoul trip or North Korea.

When asked about the discrepancies, a Cheong Wa Dae official said, “The two leaders had a friendly conversation. We disclosed all of the details as much as possible.”

In the meantime, some analysts said China could take a more flexible approach with South Korea as it gears up for several major events, such as the annual “two sessions” parliamentary meetings in March, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the China Communist Party in October and the Beijing Winter Olympics in February next year, during which smooth bilateral ties are considered crucial in boosting public and private sector exchanges between the two countries.

By Lee Ji-yoon (